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Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham lead the Rams over the Cardinals

INGLEWOOD, California - Thirty minutes before the biggest game of Matthew Stafford's NFL career, he threw passes in the warm-up with his coach, Sean McVay, standing close by.

Shortly after, the two dabbed each other and hugged; McVay then tapped Stafford on the helmet while the team jogged to the sideline before the formal player introductions.

It's almost a year ago that the partnership was formed between McVay and Stafford, then the frustrated face of the dying Detroit Lions, when they were both eliminated from the off-season and randomly on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, at the same time. They went together in hopes of playing meaningful matches in January and later.

Monday was a crucial step toward that vision as the Rams defeated the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 in the NFC's wildcard round, the first playoff victory in Stafford's 13-year career.

Stafford completed 13 of 17 passes on 202 yards and a touchdown without interceptions and advanced the Rams to this weekend’s division round, where the team will play the No. 2 seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

The Rams defense intercepted Kyler Murray twice on back-to-back drives in the second quarter, returning one to a touchdown that put Los Angeles ahead, 21-0. Running backs Sony Michel and Cam Akers rushed a total of 113 yards, and McVay smartly challenged two officiating calls that were reversed, which soon led to points.

Stafford's play may not have won the Rams game, but neither have the interceptions in late games that have been his business cards judged them. It's an achievement he said he was happy with, and he later downplayed the significance of his first victory in January, saying, "it's more important to you."

"I just want to be a part of this team and help us win," Stafford continued. "I trust myself, trust my abilities, trust my teammates. We go out there and play and let the chips fall where they can."

Shortly before checking into the resort last year, an agitated McVay sat in a video conference with reporters following his team's loss to the Packers in the division round, complimenting Aaron Rodgers' balance and performance. He did not come with kind words to his quarterback at the time, Jared Goff, and did not say definitively that Goff would return for the 2021 season.

He wanted an upgrade. Although Goff led Los Angeles to a Super Bowl in 2018, he went back and threw 29 interceptions in the next two seasons.

Enter Stafford, who had lost the only three postseason games he played in with the Detroit Lions, despite throwing for 45,109 career yards, fifth among active passers-in to enter this season.

McVay convinced General Manager Les Snead to trade for Stafford in a grand exchange that included Goff and two future first-round draft picks, with the team going all in to build a championship caliber list ahead of this season's Super Bowl, like the Rams will host.

The early return on Stafford's trade and the star acquisitions that followed - linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. came to the middle of the season - have been positive. The Rams won 12 games and claimed NFC West, and Stafford threw 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns. But his 17 interceptions were a draw for the league and often derailed his team against quality competition.

That was not the case Monday night.

Stafford placed accurate passes to his receivers, who created separation and yards after the catch all night from the Cardinals' defensive backs. In the first quarter, instead of forcibly feeding Cooper Kupp, who was a double team in the end zone, Stafford found smart Beckham in single coverage. He made an acrobatically leaping catch for a 4-yard score.

With such a definite victory under his and Rams' belts, Stafford may well see more career-defining matches in the coming weeks.

"I'm just so lucky to be able to do this with him," McVay said after the match. "He's our leader. We would not be here without him. For him to play under such control in that game plan - yes, I think it was a combination of everything."

Beckham, who is also facing his own post-season record after his high-profile exit from the Cleveland Browns, captured the first playoff touchdown in his eight-year career, and for style points he got a 40-yard pass to Akers on a third-quarter touchdown driving. But Akers was disappointed with the ball's precision as it hung in the air.

"He probably should have led me a little bit," Akers said with a laugh.

There were no jokes for the Cardinals as Monday's result ended a disappointing season anticlimactically. Arizona broke to a record of 10-2, but lost six of their last seven games. Star receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not play with a knee injury he sustained in week 14, despite the team's hopes he could return to the playoffs. Once considered the best offensive line in the league, the Cardinals generated just 198 yards and the Rams defense hit Murray five times.

Tight-end Zach Ertz and receiver AJ Green, who were added this season, combined for just 21 yards, and defensive lineman JJ Watt returned after not playing since week 7 with a shoulder injury, having sent off three tackles. Both Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury had not been in the playoffs in their young NFL careers. None of them were proud of the result. That pushed Kingsbury's record to 24-25-1 in his three seasons as a coach, and Murray completed just 55.9 percent of his passes in 137 yards.

"It's disappointing that we did not make it to a match and came out and played the football we know we are capable of playing," Murray said. "Losing weight is one thing, but when you do not even make it competitive, it is another thing."

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